What do/did my characters eat? That’s a question I’ve asked myself when filling in the details for my historical novels. Of course, as authors, we don’t include everything our characters eat at every meal, but some details often make the difference between ambiguity and accuracy.
Especially with historical fiction, the characters have to draw the reader into their lives by using all the senses, and since taste is one of them, it’s important.
When I interviewed the man whose life became the basis of my latest published novel, In a Foreign Land, I asked him what his family ate when they lived in northern China circa 1930. Did they eat Chinese food like the neighboring farmers in their longhouses, Japanese cuisine introduced by those in power in Manchuria at the time, Russian dishes cooked in the izbas of those who had fled the Soviet Union, or did they maintain their Mennonite customs carried across from South Russia?
His answer became part of my story: “We ate regular Mennonite food, you know, like sausage and potatoes and wareniki and borscht and zwieback, but Mother always kept a bottle of soy sauce on the table.” This gave me a little glimpse into the adaptations the family made to their surroundings; a peek into the relationships of these characters with their neighbors. It was a small fact to make the fiction more believable.
The more we write, the more we see opportunity to include the gems that make our stories shine, or the aromas that create realities in the minds of our readers.